Li Zehou, who was one of China’s most revered intellectuals and who authored numerous books on the history of Chinese philosophy and aesthetics, died Tuesday at his Colorado home. He was 91 years old.
After the news of Li’s passing broke Wednesday, I immediately thought back to a comment he’d made when I first interviewed him in 2010. When I asked if he would ever return to China from the United States, where he had moved in the early 1990s, Li waved his hand. “I think I’ll probably die in America,” he replied.
A titan of contemporary Chinese intellectual history, Li was born in 1930 in the central province of Hunan. After graduating from the Philosophy Department of Peking University in 1954, he joined the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences as a researcher on Western philosophy. An expert on the work of Immanuel Kant, Li would spend the next several decades — excluding a brief period during the Cultural Revolution when he was sent to teach at a rural school — as one of China’s leading scholars and public teachers of philosophy.
The end of the Cultural Revolution in 1976 marked the start of Li’s most productive period. In 1981, he published “The Path of Beauty,” in which he combed through thousands of years of Chinese art and literature to produce an overview of Chinese aesthetics. Hailed instantly as a classic, “The Path of Beauty” was reprinted numerous times throughout the 1980s and helped usher in that decade’s popular “fever” for culture and aesthetics as young, intellectually curious Chinese embraced new ideas in the wake of the Cultural Revolution.
“The Path of Beauty” turned Li into a superstar — an idol of the so-called Chinese Enlightenment, an era when the most bookish of academics could achieve mainstream celebrity. His colleagues recalled how Li’s office was always packed with visitors from around the country, to the point where they sometimes couldn’t squeeze in.
Yet Li would later take a somewhat fatalistic view of that era’s intellectual curiosity. “Why was aesthetics so popular? What about that era made a female factory worker want buy a book on aesthetics?” he mused in a 2005 interview with China Newsweek. “At the time, Chinese society had just awoken from the Cultural Revolution. For more than a decade, people’s pursuit of beauty was suppressed. Then they once again began to pay attention to the details of the everyday, to what beauty was, to what ugliness was.”
“When that era passed,” he added, “people’s ‘fever’ for aesthetics receded with it.”
To a generation of Chinese, Li was the quintessential “1980s intellectual” — patriotic, but distrustful of ideological orthodoxy and anything else that might stand in the way of enlightenment. Deeply knowledgeable and well read, he was willing and able to give sweeping, macroscopic accounts of history, even if some of his claims, like “Chinese mountain-water paintings are the equivalent of the cross in the West,” may not stand up to modern scholarly scrutiny.
Li Zehou attends the Expo 2010 in Shanghai, October 2010. Zhao Yun for Sixth Tone
For me, however, Li’s greatest contribution wasn’t “The Path of Beauty,” but his even more ambitious three-volume work from that era: a history of Chinese thought from ancient times to the modern period. Over the course of his life, Li grew increasingly dissatisfied with the state of Western philosophy, and particularly the rise of postmodernism. In “The Path of Beauty,” he analyzed the lasting appeal of ancient bronzes using ideas borrowed from Nietzsche and comparing them to Greek tragedies. But like other Chinese intellectuals trained in the Western tradition before him, including Liang Qichao and Wang Guowei, as he got older, he grew more interested in the potential for traditional Chinese philosophy, and specifically Confucianism, to contribute solutions to some of the world’s classic philosophical conundrums.
In particular, Li saw in the Confucian tradition’s focus on “emotion” a potential complement to Western philosophy’s emphasis on reason. To Li, emotion was the “last reality” and part of the “nature of humanity,” and his concept of “emotion-based substance” or “emotion as substance” (qing benti) highlighted the crucial importance of emotions to early Confucian thought and practice. As ever, his research questions were vast: How should we carry on the Confucian tradition of emotion-based philosophy? How should we differentiate between the relationship-based “human love” (ren’ai) of the Confucian tradition and the ideal of unconditional, universal love (agape) of Christianity? And how do these differing ideas of love shape our understanding of life and its relationship to death?
For better or for worse, in today’s increasingly specialized and subdivided academic world, there are not many scholars left who think on this scale — or who see in their work a way to save humanity.
Unfortunately, the career of this most quintessential of 1980s intellectuals was nearly derailed by the decade’s end. In 1992, at the age of 62, Li Zehou left Beijing a political pariah and moved to the United States to take up a teaching position at the University of Colorado.
If he was disappointed by this turn of events — which saw him go from the forefront of Chinese intellectual life to teaching the basics of Chinese culture to students in a college town thousands of miles from home — he never showed it. He worked hard to improve his English so he could reach a larger audience of students, and he always stressed he was proud to be a visiting professor who was expected to teach, rather than a visiting scholar doing only research. He had other interests, too: He liked a stiff drink and a good debate; he even told me that he’d taught himself to drive, after which he would speed down the roads of his Colorado town for fun.
In 2014, Li returned to China to teach a rare seminar at East China Normal University. I was pregnant at the time, but I made a point of sitting in on every class. Li was in his mid-80s then, but he was as animated and clear as ever. The more we interacted, and the less starstruck I felt in his presence, the more comfortable I was pressing him about the current state of Chinese intellectual life. When I asked him what he thought of academia’s increasing isolation, he was unsparing. “If a few words can make things clear, [our work] should not be so complicated.” He reserved special criticism for the “black words” of academic jargon as yet another side effect of postmodernism.
Yet he remained optimistic. In Li’s view, with Western philosophy devolving into postmodernist myopia, the time was ripe for Chinese philosophy to make its re-appearance.
Admitting that his lectures in the U.S. were “not something great,” he also frankly acknowledged that the seeds of his work would take a long time to bear fruit, far more time than he himself had. “It will probably take a hundred years for Westerners to understand Chinese culture.”
“Don’t you ever feel lonely?” I asked.
“Loneliness has been with me all my life,” he laughed. “I am now living quietly and preparing to die quietly and quickly.”
Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Li Zehou in Beijing, 2012. Jia Daitengfei for Sixth Tone)